Smoque BBQ: The Sweet Mystery of Brisket

 The Smoque BBQ outlet at the Revival Food Hall offers a small menu with four different proteins and 3 sides. If you look at what we sell on any given day, we sell more brisket than anything else. To us, it’s not really all that surprising. Brisket is what we’re known for and we have smoked millions of pounds of the stuff in the ten years since Smoque first opened on the Northwest side. 

Brisket at Smoque was introduced to diversify a pork-centric menu, and we didn’t expect to sell that much of it. In a town known for baby back ribs, hot-smoked rib tips and spicy link sausage, the brisket quickly became a runaway best seller at our restaurant. Around the time that we added brisket to the menu, America’s love affair with the meat really began to take off and Smoque was fortunate to catch a ride on the rising wave. 

What is the appeal of this cut of meat that has taken America by storm? Well, for one thing, it just tastes good! Pork BBQ is often thought of as a blank canvas onto which the pit master can paint a wide range of flavors. You will find BBQ masters and restaurant pros brining, injecting, rubbing, spraying, mopping and saucing pork to derive a deep flavor. However, injecting a brisket is really gilding the lily. The key to a good brisket is to season it, put it in the smoker, and then get out of the way. It can be best compared to a gemstone, where by careful cutting and faceting, you bring out the inherent brilliance that lies within. At Smoque, we of course serve sauce with our brisket, but always on the side as an accent, not the main event.

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Smoking a good brisket is seen as a special challenge in the world of BBQ. America has developed an obsession with smoking, and brisket is to the amateur smoker what Mt. Everest is to the first-time climber. It’s the ultimate challenge and the most unforgiving thing to try to smoke. Hobbyist smokers can generally take a pork shoulder or a slab of ribs, smoke it, and arrive at something edible and even tasty. However, a botched attempt at brisket can yield something that, while physically safe to consume, is basically inedible. 

I often get requests from enthusiasts and hobbyists for advice. Even in experienced hands, brisket just doesn’t lend itself to standardization. At every step, it demands expert judgment and a level of artisanship and attention to detail that can’t be operationalized. A raw brisket is covered in a thick, hard layer of fat. It needs to be pared down before it is rubbed and smoked. If you leave on too much fat, no one will want to eat it. Leave too little fat, and you risk exposing the lean meat underneath and drying it out. There is no way to look at an individual brisket and tell how deep the fat layer is. It takes time and hands-on experience trimming lots of briskets to find the perfect balance. 

Learning how to smoke a brisket is just as difficult as the initial prep work. I’ve often seen on menus things like, “Try our thirteen-hour smoked brisket.” When I see that, I hope it is a guideline rather than a rule. There is really only one correct answer to the question, “How long do you smoke a brisket?” The answer is: “Until it’s done.” A general number of hours and a temperature gauge are an excellent starting point, but the only way to really know if a brisket it done is to feel it. There’s a certain soft, but not too soft, semi-gelatinous bounce that the meat has when it’s ready to come out.

Even when it’s wrapped and ready to serve, a brisket will present challenges that require a skilled hand. A cut of meat comprises two major muscles overlying each other, each with a strong grain running in divergent directions. Slicing it is something of an art and every BBQ joint has its own approach. Even for our chopped brisket, which looks like an undifferentiated mass of meat shreds, there is more to it than meets the eye. A good chopped brisket is a blend of fatty and lean pieces, as well as outer bark and interior pieces to give the best balance of flavor and texture.  

Ultimately, brisket is one of those things that will reward you for the care that you put into it. Even after ten years, we are still learning and trying to improve our process and product. In fact, some of the practices we instituted for doing brisket at Revival Food Hall have served us so well, that we put them into effect at the original location. 

One of my favorite things about Smoque at Revival Food Hall is how brisket takes the pride of place in our operation. When you wait in line for lunch, you can watch as each brisket is unwrapped and flopped on the cutting board with the steam rising and juices running as it’s cut. Customers engaged in conversation while in line will often fall silent as they approach the cutting station with all eyes turning to the barky, juicy brisket sitting on the cutting board. The mere sight of the prior order being made is enough to convince the next person in line to order the same thing. “The stuff really sells itself,” as I often tell my crew.